Sitting squarely in the borderlands between science and fantasy, Karina Sumner-Smith’s first turn into novel length fiction (after a number of well received stories, including the Nebula nominated “An End to All things”) is the strongly crafted story of the ghost-seeing young woman Xhea in RADIANT, the first in the “Towers Trilogy”.
The science fantasy city of the Lower City and the Towers floating above provides a secondary world urban fantastical environment for Radiant’s story. Class in this world is very much a function of the ability to use magic. Those who can and do practice magic competently live in the floating Towers that serenely hover over the ruination and post-apocalyptic state of the Lower City left behind. The dregs of society, on the other hand, live in those lower city ruins, in quarters ranging from makeshift shelters in ruined subway tunnels to skyscrapers that try and reach the sky.
In both the aristocratic Towers and in the lower city, there are class divisions and struggles. The residents of the skyscrapers scheme and draw themselves in conflict with each other and mine the best of those lower than them into their systems. The floating Towers themselves have a strongly defined social structure and social ecosystem, complete with pecking orders and even physical attacks and hostile takeovers that reminded me strongly of the “Crimson Permanent Assurance” skit of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
All of this rich background makes a fine backdrop to Xhea’s story. Xhea seemingly has no magic whatsoever, which is unusual and strange even in the magic-poor Lower City. She has no ability to use the most basic of magical services and currency, which makes her day to day life a challenge. She scratches a living at something she can do, that no one around her can: Xhea can see Ghosts, and manipulate the ties they have to those they are still connected to, after death. This ability brings her into contact with Shai, a ghost from the Towers that her father wants to sever the bond to. This proves to be far more complicated than Xhea expects. The novel revolves around the bond that Xhea and Shai develop as they explore the real reasons behind Shai’s state and the unlocking of Xhea’s own hitherto unknown and destructive talents.
The novel had a number of recent genre touchstones for me that made the novel an interesting combination of elements. The science fantastical city, with its strong emphasis on class structure and division, brought me to mind of Joshua Palmatier’s SHATTERING THE LEY. Smith goes further and even more pointed in her examination of the class struggle between haves and have-nots by her focus on Xhea’s story and situation, and keeping her as an outsider to the power struggles rather than Kara’s slow growth into the situation she faces in Erenthrall. Both cities, however, are strongly designed and drawn science fantasy locales with interesting social and class structures that shape and inform their protagonists.
Smith’s treatment of ghosts, and the bond that forms between Xhea and Shai, brought me in mind of the work of Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia’s novels, starting with DELIA’S SHADOW. Although Moyer’s novels are historical fantasy in a world otherwise without magic, the distancing that being able to see and be seen by ghosts was reinvoked for me in Radiant. Xhea’s relationship with Shai is a strength of the novel, in the same vein as Delia’s relationships to the ghosts around her. Too, Xhea’s extremely conflicted relationship with that power and ability to engage with the ghosts felt very much something that Moyer’s Delia could also appreciate.
Finally, the revelation of Xhea’s other most destructive ability and relationship to magic, in a way orthogonal to just about everyone else and the existing power structure, brought to mind for me Joanne Anderton’s Veiled World series, started with DEBRIS. Tanyana in that novel starts off at the height of power and influence and is brought low, true, a very different starting point than Xhea. However, Tanyana’s evolving and growing relationship with her new and different connection to the arcane world after being severed from her normal abilities, a connection that seems at first only destructive, felt like an echo as Xhea struggled with her own new and difficult to control destructive ability.
While I think the novel could have been somewhat tighter and polished, primarily in regard to somewhat underwhelming plotting, the combination of disparate genre elements, a strong voice for the protagonist, and interesting issues raised made RADIANT overall a very strong read for me. Smith’s voice is more than powerful enough here to urge me to continue to read the series.